Fireplace + coffee + mystery = Happy Unruly

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King
Still
happening!
Only
more so.
I had
some of the happiest reading moments while playing hooky from my assigned
reading and diving into this book instead. I’m telling you: bliss.
Here’s
why:
– Shipboard
setting. Man, I’m a sucker for a book set on the high seas. And this book
starts with Mary and Holmes studying Japanese onboard a ship, tutored by a
young Japanese woman who turns out to have some serious secrets. The picture of
them, toiling side by side to learn a challenging language, is really rather
charming.
– Japanese
setting. King brings Japan and its culture to life, so it’s like being there without
the discomforts of travel.
– King’s
writing style. I’m telling you, it’s such a doggone comfort to relax in the
care of a skilled writer who does all the work so you don’t have to. I just
read and luxuriated in her smoothly constructed sentences and nearly purred.
– The
delightful blend of zippy action and the mundane pleasures of daily life. Here’s
a scene from onboard the ship:
“The
damp pages turned. For two hours, absolutely nothing happened: no shots rang
out, no tusked boars rampaged down the decks, no flimsy aeroplanes beckoned.
Normal life can be extraordinarily restful.” (p. 22)
(I’m
purring again.)
This
book felt pretty much perfect to me. It might be a happy enough reading memory to tide me over until the next installment. 
Maybe.

Christmas in October

Wait for Signs by Craig Johnson

3 words: warm, manly, decent

Christmas
came early this year. In two ways.
First,
this book is made up of short stories, thereby fulfilling my Book Bingo
requirement and getting me unstuck.
Second,
most of the stories take place around Christmastime. 
Normally, this would make
me puke, but we’re talking Craig Johnson here, so puking is out of the
question. He keeps it too wry and too real for me to be having an attack of
“way too heartwarming” seasonal nausea.*
Though, I
gotta say: some of these stories (one of them especially—“Slick-Tongued Devil”**)
prompted some emotions. Johnson’s getting a pass, because when he writes stories
that make a person feel sad or grateful or nostalgic, he never cheapens any of
the emotions and he keeps it all free of smarm. (I can’t stand smarm.)
The beauty
of these stories is that they fill in some of the gaps between the novels in
the Walt Longmire mystery series. They’re vignettes that show us some everyday
occurrences and also some turning points in Walt’s life. And they illustrate the
tough, kind, decent man he is. (Yes, I know I’m talking about a fictional
character as though he’s real.)
They say
that when you read short stories, you should savor every word. With Craig
Johnson’s books and stories, I do that by necessity; I don’t want to miss a
single syllable. 
Merry
Christmas, y’all.
*A third
thing that was Christmas-y: I was reading this book while on a dream vacation
with people I love.
**That
one almost made me cry.

Best new mystery of the year

Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

3 words:
rural, realistic, introspective
Dang,
guys! There’s a new guy on the block, and he’s written one heck of a debut
mystery.
And he
says it’s planned to be the first of four books in a series about Henry Farrell,
so even better.

What’s
to love: A first-person narrator who’s darn unusual—a mid-level cop (a township
police officer) who’s somewhere between a sheriff and a rank-and-file cop. So
his perspective is an interesting one.

And he’s
an introverted young widower who feels alienated from the people around him. 
So: also somewhat unusual.
And the
dude plays the fiddle.
The
other thing that sets him apart is that he’s very much an everyman, underdog,
unheroic protagonist. Things get messy, and he makes mistakes.
So what
I’m saying is: Henry Farrell is a realistic main character.
What
else to love: The book is set in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, so
it has the rural feel of Craig Johnson’s and Donald Harstad’s mystery series
about rural police officers. And there’s fracking, which has set neighbors
against one another because of differing views on the issue. And money.  
So: the
plot. A decaying body is discovered on the property of an elderly recluse and
then Farrell’s deputy is killed. And the investigation reveals all kinds of
secrets people never would’ve guessed about the neighbors they thought they
knew so well.
Also
good: The details, such as the birdwatcher/photographer coroner, who stops
while on a business call to admire the birds. And Farrell’s appreciation of the
small pleasures; he’s pleased by their new walkie-talkies. It all makes the
book feel more real. 
Can’t
wait for book 2.  

Child’s Play

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

3 words:
creepy, gripping, grim
I was
almost too scared to read Jo Nesbo. I kept thinking Nordic noir… that’s some
depressing stuff. Then you throw in creepy serial killers with inventive ways
of dispatching people, and yeah. I’m running in the opposite direction.
But he
was on the genre study assignment list, so I made inquiries of Nesbo readers
and learned that The Snowman “isn’t that
bad.” And I took a deep breath and downloaded the eBook.
I was traveling when I was reading it, and I got so hooked into the story, it
ran down the battery of my iPhone. When I got off the plane, I had to find a
power outlet fast.
That
made me rather happy.
So
we’re talking here about a plot that won’t let go of you. Twists and turns and
all that good stuff.
But we’re
also talking about some seriously disturbing murder action. I had to skim over
sections (I did that thing where I un-focus my eyes) in order to be able to
handle it. (I’m a feeble thing when it comes to messed-up murderer characters.)
And
Harry Hole, the police detective who is at the center of the series, leads a
life so miserable, he’d have to be a Scandinavian police officer.
Grim,
my darlings. This stuff is grim.
For
those who can handle Luther and
for those who became hooked on the Stieg Larsson books.

Police – past procedural

The Mugger by Ed McBain
 

Sure,
he’s considered the granddaddy of the modern police procedural, but does anyone
really read Ed McBain anymore?
I’m
thinking: just barely. (Yeah, so maybe I’m wrong.)
And
even though I love me a good workplace book, and some of my best friends
favorite books are police procedurals*, I’d never read McBain’s classic 87th
Precinct series.
Probably
because they seemed a little bit dusty. I mean, the series began in the 1950s.
(My parents still were children then, for the love of Mike!)
But the series
raged on into the 2000’s, so heck. Someone must’ve been reading them.
When I
finally succumbed, I went with the second book in the series: The Mugger, from 1956.
And
man, the thing felt retro. With regard to gender stereotypes, it was so dated
as to be laughable.
But the
mystery itself hung together, and some of the plot developments were pleasantly
surprising. The New York setting was nicely evoked, though cloaked in a
different name.
And I
can see the appeal of the series offering a huge cast and then returning in
each book to focus on a different cop or two. If you like the ensemble cast
concept, this series just might be the thing for you.
*Edward
Conlon, where oh where is your next book? Craig Johnson, thank you for
publishing one a year plus the occasional bonus book. Such favors assure your
first place position for quite some time.

Cramming

The Lovers by John Connolly
I’m
doing that thing I sometimes do. 
Yes, I’m over-preparing for something. 
Nothing
makes me happier. (Lots of things make me happier. Cadbury Eggs, for example.)
But
here’s the thing: I’m leading a session of a mystery genre study soon, so I’m
cramming. 
It makes me feel virtuous. 
It makes me feel confident. 
It makes me
feel resourceful.
Ultimately,
it makes me feel a bit tired.
But
mostly, virtuous.
And I’m
reading authors I feel like I should’ve read years ago: Walter Mosley, George
Pelecanos, John Connolly.
And
today we’re talking Connolly. Not Michael, but John. The guy who sets his
mysteries in Maine.
And I
picked a good one: The Lovers. For
me, it was the perfect fit because this is the one where private investigator
Charlie Parker looks into his own family’s past to discover the reason for his
father’s death. And I love that mystery-from-the-past stuff.
And Parker
is a fairly typical p.i.—tough as nails, independent to a fault, and stubborn.
I like p.i.’s.
The
thing that surprised me was the element of the supernatural. Parker’s wife and
daughter were murdered (earlier in the series), and their ghosts are present. Somehow
Connolly makes this work, even though I’m usually curmudgeonly about such
things.
And
Parker is a guy you can’t help liking. And that’s probably the most important
appeal element in a mystery series: you gotta like the main character, or the
whole thing’s sunk.
So if
I had way more time, I’d read more books in this series. But back here in my
own little reality show, let’s face it: ain’t never gonna happen. But that’s nothing against
Connolly, just my beautiful, busy life and my devotion to other series who got
there earlier and staked a claim on me. 
Sorry, Charlie.

That’s why I’m Easy*…

Cinnamon Kiss by Walter Mosley
Easy
Rawlins is a name I’ve known for years now, but I didn’t make his acquaintance
until just recently. I’ve been reading/listening up a storm in preparation for
a genre study, and it was time to read Walter Mosley. It was overdue, actually,
but I got there eventually.
Now, I’m
a sucker for first-person narratives, especially if that narrator is a private
investigator. So I was pretty sure I was gonna like this book, but I was
surprised by how quickly I was pulled into the story.
I
listened to the audiobook, which is read by Michael Boatman, who makes a
wonderful Easy Rawlins.
It’s
1966, and Easy is in need of a lot of money, and fast. His daughter is sick,
and he needs $30,000 to send her to a specialist in order to save her life.
And it’s
in the midst of this type of pressure that he accepts a job to track down a guy
in San Francisco (Easy’s an L.A. man himself). And he’s also considering helping
his best friend with a heist, because where else is a guy gonna get that kind
of money that fast?
In
this book, there’s so much going wrong in his life, Easy could be singing the
blues. But he’s a fighter, and I was rooting for him. And his little girl.
If you’re
a mystery reader who loves a p.i. novel where things keep getting messier and
messier (this is most p.i. novels, I realize) yet the detective carries on
valiantly against the odds, then this book will have you humming with pleasure.
 

*

Second time around, Part 2

The Sweetness at the Bottom of
the Pie
by
Alan Bradley

Assigned
reading saves the day.

I’d
started this book once before, and I bailed on about page 2. (I do this a lot.)

In
this case, it was because the main character, an 11-year-old girl, was being
held captive. And I just didn’t buy it.

Of
course, when I read the book for a genre study, I discovered that her horrible
older sisters had locked her up somewhere in their big old pile of an English country
house. And that just made sense.

But I
discovered, as I continued to read, that suspension of disbelief remained a strict
requirement for reading this book.

I
mean, seriously: How many 11-year-old genius chemists with a penchant for murder-solving
do you really know? And, as the series continues, what is the likelihood that
she’ll continue to stumble upon poisoning deaths in her little village?

So you
see what I mean.

However,
I just might end up reading more of this series, and here’s why:

The
voice of the character is just plain delightful. Here’s a sample sentence:

“As I
was making my way up the stairs, Dogger materialized suddenly above me on the
landing with a candleholder that might have been snapped up at an estate sale
at Manderley.” (p. 224)

So
here’s my coping mechanism: I pretend Flavia is actually a genius 15-year-old.
It’s still a stretch, but it works a bit better for me.

Bradley’s
writing style—and his creation of the very odd de Luce family—are probably
going to keep me coming back for more.

 

Second time around, Part 1

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
Recently
a genre study has compelled me to finish two books I’d started and discarded
(not literally; I returned them to the library). And in both cases, reading them was a
happy experience.
I’d had
a feeling I’d like The Spellman Files,
but I must not’ve been in the mood the first time I started reading it. This
time, though, I was only ornery during the first few chapters, during which
Izzy Spellman, the 20-something narrator, talks about her badass misbehaving
petty crime days. I kind of wanted to slap her.
But
then the book improved, as her family became more of the story and as Izzy
seemed to start to grow up.
Hers
is a family of private detectives, and everyone’s in on the act, even her
little sister Rae, who was bit with the bug as a child and conducted her first surveillance
at age 6. I adore that girl.
So her
family is enchantingly offbeat, and that’s always a plus.
And
the structure of the book appealed to me. Each chapter had a theme—such as her
ex-boyfriends or her uncle Ray’s lost weekends—yet the story moved forward
nicely even with these side excursions (which actually provided some great
background information about the characters).
And
Izzy is a Get Smart addict, and
there’s lots to like about that.

So,
yeah. I liked it enough that I have book 2, Curse of the Spellmans, riding around with me in the car, queued up
as my next audiobook. I don’t dive willy nilly into a series, so this is a
meaningful step, guys.

Also — I got all the way through the book without realizing it doesn’t exactly contain a mystery. In fact, no substantial mystery whatsoever. But the book still works. It’s really quite something.

More Elmore

Killshot by Elmore Leonard

When anyone says the words “Elmore Leonard,” I get a dreamy look in my eye. I adore that guy.

So when a friend chose one of his books for our book club, I was a happy girl.
Then I got partway through the audiobook, and my happiness began to wane a bit. And I know exactly why.
This book gave me a feeling of dread, and I thought, “This thing’s a horror novel!”*
Because here’s the premise: A nice, ordinary couple, through no fault of their own, find themselves pursued by a professional hit man and his sociopathic sidekick. So they enter the witness protection program, and that’s a whole new nightmare. 
And meanwhile, during at least half of the book, we’re hanging out with the bad guys. And I’ve basically decided life is too short to waste on such stuff, so I would’ve bailed on the book had it not been assigned for book club.
Also, I knew Elmore wouldn’t let me down. And sure enough, he brought it home in style. But still, I think I’ll be spending more time on the sunny side of the street. 
*It’s not.